A high-profile accountability process has resulted in an Iowa minister stepping back from United Methodist ministry.
This morning, I received my official notice that a “just resolution” had been reached in a formal complaint I filed nearly 20 months ago. “Just resolutions” are the equivalent in our denomination’s church law of out-of-court settlements.
Rev. Anna Blaedel, has since 2016, by all appearances, been deliberately inviting formal complaints, making numerous provocative public declarations that she is unrepentantly living in violation of our denomination’s longstanding prohibition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy, per ¶304.3 in our governing Book of Discipline.
Filing complaints is never a joyful affair. But after my previous interactions with Blaedel and seeing how bishops had made things worse, I could not just sit back and allow the harm to keep being inflicted on the church I love. You can read the key background and details about this complaint and my filing my complaint as a last resort, including Blaedel’s admitting to engaging in occultic “tarot” practice, by clicking here.
Bishop Clifton Ives, who served as a facilitator, reported that a church trial had actually been scheduled for this complaint, although the date was not announced, but that when that happened, Blaedel took the initiative in seeking a just resolution with the bishop, which led to this result.
The just resolution announcement itself is a bit confusing, consisting of a multitude of links to videos and texts of statements from various parties involved in the process.
I was the only major party in this case who was excluded from this just-resolution process and not invited to offer any statement alongside the others.
So here I am offering my own statement and setting the record straight.
Much of what the Iowa Conference has published amounts to the sort of red-meat liberal rhetoric and uncharitable accusations against traditional Christian believers which I was sadly expecting.
But what does it all actually mean?
The statements confirm what was hardly a secret before: Blaedel, her advocate Tyler Schwaller, Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller, her latest appointed counsel for the church Jerry Oakland (the first two resigned), and Facilitator Bishop S. Clifton Ives are all liberal. Hardly shocking.
More substantively, Blaedel has now gone on “a Voluntary Personal Leave of Absence” as a direct result of this complaint. While there are important differences between that and an involuntary suspension, much of the effect is the same.
The clergy covenant for which Blaedel knowingly chose to sign up prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being “appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” And she is now no longer serving under appointment.
In her lengthy statement, Blaedel said the following:
“Today we are naming together the truth that it is not currently possible for me to continue my ministry in the context of the Iowa Annual Conference, nor the UMC. That is not the truth I want to come to, but it has been, is being, revealed as true. I have hoped for a different conclusion to this story, and resolution to this series of complaints. And the story is still being written. But. And. I am no longer willing to subject my body and soul and life to this particular violence.”
Blaedel further declared:
“I know I need to extricate myself from a denomination and conference that are increasingly toxic, traumatic, and abusive. I do not have what I need to faithfully and healthily continue my participation in it. So, I am taking time, and claiming space, for healing, for discernment, for listening into the unknown future.”
The main text for the just resolution describes Blaedel’s going on leave as being for the express purposes of “personal healing, and for discerning a livable future and alternatives to remaining a member of the Iowa Conference and The United Methodist Church … which seems to hold no future for them and their ministry.”
So in summary, this complaint has resulted in Blaedel now stepping out of circulation from the UMC appointment system and publicly declaring, in rather strong language, her intent to “extricate” herself from the UMC, pursuing a future of something other than ministry within our denomination or within the Iowa Conference.
This was not my ideal result. In my own communications within this process, I repeatedly made clear that “Christian reconciliation and restoration remain my ideal results.”
And yet I am relieved that now at least a measure of accountability has been achieved.
In her own statement, Bishop Haller went out of her way to praise Blaedel, recite a poem by Blaedel’s partner, lament how the UMC’s governing Discipline upholds traditional biblical sexual morality and does not give American United Methodists unilateral rights as a central conference to make regional adaptations, and express hopeful support for both changing.
Haller also talked about wanting to do what she could within her power to avoid accountability for clergy who choose to violate our church’s sexuality standards and about her commitment to seeking just resolutions. But this is largely the same as what I recall her already promising at a Methodist Federation for Social Action event back when she was running for bishop in 2016. And bishops in our denomination do not have unlimited power.
The resolution includes a confusing statement about “double jeopardy,” that is of dubious legal value. No one in the UMC has any authority to bestow on anyone else an absolute “blank check” to violate our Discipline in the future with a guarantee of no accountability.
In any case, this announcement brings my own involvement in this particular complaint to a resolution. If Blaedel needs a little space and time to discern her next steps, in light of the quoted statements above, I can respect that. As the complainant, I previously conveyed my interest in ensuring that Blaedel would have her material needs met in any time of transition (even though I was never aware of any income of which she would have necessarily been deprived if she immediately surrendered her ordination) and to have continuing health insurance. I was glad to learn that she still has the latter.
At one point I had even offered, as part of a wider just resolution agreement, to exercise restraint in terms of my potentially filing future complaints. But that offer was evidently rejected by those who announced this resolution.
Now I am moving on to focus on the bigger picture of finding a way for our church to get out of our increasingly painful, unsustainable internal conflict.
Earlier, I wrote: “As one Iowa Conference friend recently remarked, if Blaedel values the good of the Iowa Conference above herself, then she has a rather unique ability to spare it the cost and trouble of a church trial.”
She has now done that. Regardless of our disagreements, I appreciate the integrity Blaedel has shown in speaking very directly and clearly in most of this process (rather than following the well-worn path of hiding behind word games and technicalities), choosing not to appeal the certification of charges to the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals (which would have dragged this process out further), and now sparing us a church trial.
I am also grateful to Bishop Ives for publicly acknowledging the fact that throughout these 20 months, I have repeatedly made clear my interest in dialoguing to seek a just resolution.
Our denomination’s complaint process is an essential means by which our clergy are held accountable when they violate trust in any major way, not just on matters related to homosexuality. This complaint is now resolved. But it would be extremely unhealthy and harmful for our church if other bishops handling any future complaints (on any issue) followed the example of Bishop Haller and her appointees in some key process matters.
Our accountability is undermined, along with the ability of laypeople to trust our church at a fundamental level, when a bishop declines to even once speak with a layperson who files a complaint, when this layperson’s requests to dialogue about seeking a just resolution and to meet directly with the minister against whom the complaint was filed are all denied, when the bishop and her appointees (one in particular) needlessly drag the process out for 20 months, when the bishop suddenly (without consultation) breaks the confidentiality of the process to publicly “out” the layperson who filed the complaint and make this layperson a target, when the bishop appoints a counsel for the Church who is openly biased against this layperson and against the church-law standard he is supposed to defend, and when a just resolution is negotiated and agreed upon in a process forcefully excluding the layperson who filed the complaint (with more than a hint of clerical elitism).
Hopefully such missteps will not set any sort of precedent.
The just resolution statement – signed by Haller, Blaedel, Schwaller, Oakland, and Ives – appears to blame me for failing to answer a question about “what harm has been done?” But I was never actually asked this question.
In a carefully worded sleight-of-hand, the just resolution rather misleadingly says that in my initial March 2018 complaint letter, I did “not name any harm that has been done to [me] by Rev. Anna Blaedel,” and that “Neither has the Iowa Conference identified harm that has been done to it by Rev. Blaedel.”
I am not quite sure what they meant about what “the Iowa Conference” (who is not a person) said. But in my statement to the Iowa Conference Committee on Investigation in August, I did talk about the harm to the extent that I could within the three minutes I had. I touched on the dire threat posed to United Methodist congregations by unfaithful pastors remaining in our itinerant appointment system, the obscene package mailed to my home, Blaedel’s publicly encouraging harassment against three faithful United Methodist clergy that became so vicious that they all appear to have been driven out of UMC congregational ministry, and the financial losses Blaedel has helped cause for the Iowa Conference. (Related to that last point, I recently saw that the Iowa Conference has now gotten into such financially bad shape that it is permanently closing all of its district offices.)
Had any of those involved in this just resolution ever once asked me or included me in any of their conversations, I could have shared a lot more about the harm done to laypeople like myself when clergy in our denomination break trust with us as Blaedel has, New Testament warnings against how a little yeast of sexual sin poisonously leavens the whole dough of the church, the harm caused in my own Indiana Annual Conference, and other harms.
Anyone seriously interested in listening to answers to questions of what harm was being done should take time to read this powerful testimony from a gifted young United Methodist ordination candidate who herself has experienced same-sex attractions from a young age.
But we have clearly reached a deep divide, in which liberal and traditionalist members who remain locked within the same denomination not only feel deeply harmed by the other, but cannot even agree on what it means to cause harm.
For his part, Dr. Schwaller (Blaedel’s advocate) had some choice words apparently aimed at those institutionalist liberals who seem determined to preserve at all costs the UNITY of our denomination in its current name, structure, agencies, and assets, along with “big-tent” inclusion of both traditionalists and progressive believers:
“Whenever I am in conversations about potential divestment or disaffiliation from the UMC, it never fails that someone exclaims, ‘But UMCOR! But UMW! But [fill in the blank Methodist ministry that does good]!’ But what about Anna Blaedel? What does it mean that we have structured, assented to, and perpetuated an institution that has made life and ministry unsustainable for Anna?”
And he later said:
“If I have one thing to say to the people of this church, it may be simply this: perhaps the most insidious harm is not outright bigotry—that’s obvious—but when people call themselves friends, while being willing to compromise our lives for the sake of ‘church unity.’ And what has that gotten us? The promise of unity has only exacerbated division, destroying the church, as it has destroyed the lives of LGBTQIA+ beloveds.”
In her own statement, Blaedel said, “It is true that we can find meaningful middle ground and compromise on all sorts of things.” But she insists that affirming transgenderist ideology and the “holy compatibility” of her sexual-morality choices “is not something about which faithful people can disagree,” equates disagreement with hate, and declares that those who believe differently “need to repent.”
Imagine if Blaedel was appointed to be my pastor!
In the course of this process, I have made sure to affirm Anna Blaedel “as a person of sacred worth, lovingly created in God’s very image.” No less than me. Blaedel and I are also both such undeserving sinners, her no more so than me, that we have no basis for any hope other than the blood of Jesus.
Especially within the Wesleyan/Methodist theological tradition, it is precisely because of this understanding, and because of the church’s sacred calling to spread Scriptural holiness across the land, that we need the church to be a biblical Christian community in which we actually love each other enough to confront each other when any of us have dangerously gone astray into ultimately self-destructive sin.
If someone, especially one seeking to be among the minority in selective spiritual leadership positions, is not interested in that sort of deep faith community, and prefers a more individualistic approach, I hope that they could reconsider. But if that is their choice, it is hard to see what good is done by trying to pressure people to be kept within a faith community whose core values they no longer accept.
Attempts to paper over the depth of the internal differences we have within our denomination are simply helping no one.